- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Recent editorials from Tennessee newspapers:

March 4

News Sentinel, Knoxville, Tennessee, on the GOP:

At 10 a.m. today, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the latest challenge to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The justices will not issue their opinion until summer, but that has not prevented efforts by Tennessee Republican lawmakers to float proposals in anticipation that the ruling will go against the federal government.

A pair of proposals - one state, one federal - have bubbled up. One is not necessary, while the other is vague and premature.

The case, King v. Burwell, will determine whether people in states where the federal government runs the ACA’s insurance exchanges qualify for subsidies. Tennessee and 36 other states use federal exchanges. More than a quarter-million Tennesseans have purchased insurance through the exchange, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that 82 percent of them receive subsidies.

The law states that subsidies would be available to qualified people who purchase insurance on exchanges “established by the state,” but is silent on whether the subsidies would be available on exchanges run by the federal government. The case boils down to a choice between Congress’ intent and the plain language of the law.

In the state Legislature, state Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown has introduced a bill that would bar the state from setting up its own exchange.

The bill is not needed. If the federal government prevails in the Supreme Court, nothing changes and Kelsey’s bill is irrelevant. If the plaintiffs win, Tennesseans would no longer be able to receive subsidies and the state still would not be running an exchange.

Gov. Bill Haslam has flagged the bill, which officially signals his administration opposes it, and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has described the legislation as “overkill.” Kelsey was one of seven Republican senators who voted last month in committee to kill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal to expand coverage to the working poor.

On the federal level, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and two of his Republican colleagues suggested a “bridge away from Obamacare” in a column posted online by the Washington Post on Sunday. Alexander, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming would continue to provide financial assistance for a limited time to Americans who have purchased insurance policies through the exchanges. Their proposal would “give states the freedom and flexibility” to set up their own health insurance markets, the trio wrote. The column contained no details, so it remains unclear whether any legislation they propose would require states to cover as many citizens as possible - which should be the overriding policy goal.

The concept is too vague at this point to add much value to the health care debate. Alexander, Hatch and Barrasso will have to bring their ideas into focus before a serious discussion can begin.

These proposals are predicated on the assumption that the Supreme Court will shoot down the subsidies. The justices surprised many in 2012 by upholding the ACA’s individual mandate, however, and predicting which way they will rule might prove to be folly.




March 2

The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tennessee, on Arkansas Senate:

An Arkansas Senate committee saved the state from further embarrassment last week, at least for now, when it narrowly defeated a thinly veiled bill to protect Arkansans’ right to discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation.

The Conscience Protection Act was rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee in the wake of the passage of a separate measure prohibiting local governments from enacting anti-discrimination laws.

That law had drawn protests from everyone from the Eureka Springs City Council to singer Cher, who in a message to Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson appealed unsuccessfully for a veto.

Passed 24-8 in the Senate and 58-21 in the House, the new law apparently will nullify the Eureka Springs council’s Feb. 9 passage of an ordinance providing protection from discrimination against residents and visitors who are members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender communities.

A referendum will be held in May to test the strength of a backlash among opponents of the new ordinance. But for now it’s the law in Eureka Springs, the scene of the first same-sex marriages in Arkansas after a judge in Little Rock ruled last year that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.

The Eureka Springs ordinance calls for mediation to settle disputes and fines of up to $500 if those efforts fail. It was modeled after a Fayetteville ordinance that was rescinded by voters locally, where these matters ought to be settled as long as constitutional rights are protected.

The controversy gained wide coverage after Hutchinson’s decision to let the new state measure barring local anti-discrimination ordinances to become law without his signature.

The “conscience-protection” proposal, which failed in the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday on a 3-3 vote, was billed as an effort to protect the free expression of religion.

It was passed in the House of Representatives last week but drew protests from some religious leaders and business interests, including Walmart, which said the proposal sent the wrong message about the state.

If the story has a familiar ring to Tennessee readers, it resembles proposals that have drawn laughs aimed at the General Assembly, most notably the “Don’t Say Gay” bill introduced by state Rep. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, and state Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, in 2012.

“Don’t Say Gay” sought to prohibit any classroom instruction, course materials or other resources “inconsistent with natural human reproduction” in grades K-8.

So far, no bills have emerged declaring heterosexuality the official state orientation. In fact, most legislators seem to have figured out that it’s not necessary to make it perfectly clear, in case anyone should doubt them, that they don’t condone homosexual lifestyles. And, one hopes, Mid-South legislators will decide that cities and counties should be given a chance to make these kinds of choices on their own.




March 2

Paris (Tennessee) Post-Intelligencer on increasing gasoline tax:

Politicians dread raising taxes, even when the need is obvious. They’re sensitive to the voter wrath that’s sure to follow any increase in the tax rate.

But these same politicians are also responsible for seeing that our government does the job it’s designed for.

The politicians in Nashville agree that something needs to be done to bolster the fund for building and maintaining state roads and bridges.

But they can’t bring themselves to do the obvious, raising the state’s gasoline tax of 21.4 cents a gallon for the first time in 25 years.

They’re being goaded by the state comptroller’s report that the tax is not enough to maintain existing structures and meet long-term needs.

Gov. Bill Haslam says, “We need to do something,” but in the same breath adds, “We’re not there yet in terms of being able to make that case,” that is, the case for a gas tax increase.

Haslam knows how to count votes, and it wouldn’t help to rush into action without lawmakers’ support.

Insufficient gasoline tax is not just a state problem. The Associated Press reports a 3.5 percent drop in federal road funds during a recent five-year period, dropping in 48 states.

But the problem is worse in our state than in others. In 2010 Tennessee spent less per capita on roads and bridges than any other state.

Granted, there are other ways to raise transportation money. The state could tie the gas tax rate to inflation or to the price of fuel. It could charge a sales tax on gasoline.

It could dip into the general fund for road projects rather than continuing to rely on the gas tax alone. It could allow local governments to levy taxes for road work.

The simplest and cleanest would be to raise the state gasoline tax, but that also may be the hardest task politically.

State Comptroller Justin P. Wilson got it right: “Any time you’re talking about revenue, the politics are tricky.”





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